Aspen Shortsfest: Antidote to Hollywood |

Aspen Shortsfest: Antidote to Hollywood

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Contributed photo"Going Nowhere," directed by Rene Frelle Petersen, shows Friday at Aspen Shortsfest.

ASPEN – Talk to filmmakers and filmgoers from outside the U.S., and you will often hear the complaint of Hollywood hegemony. Not only do big-budget Hollywood films grab all the attention, and all the screens, from Sydney to Santiago, but the Hollywood aesthetic can be so dominant that it infects the cinema of other cultures.

Consider Aspen Shortsfest to be the antidote to all that. As makers of short films work with minuscule budgets, tiny distribution channels, actors who won’t be mistaken for movie stars, and virtually no commercial expectations, the idea of following in the footsteps of Hollywood doesn’t exist.

Which truly opens up the game. Aspen Shortsfest 2011, which closes with a flurry of programs this weekend, in Aspen and Carbondale, seems less about Hollywood – less about the U.S., in fact – than ever before. Only about a third of the 83 films showing in the Shortsfest competition are from the States; the rest of the roster is filled out with films from Israel, Iran, Norway, Uganda, India – and that hotbed of short films, Australia.

It is not only the filmmakers’ addresses that are foreign; so is the approach to story-telling. In place of explosions and action heroes, there are profiles of real people, stories that peer into distinct cultures, and comedy in the oddest of places.

Profiled here are four Shortsfest filmmakers – one apiece from Australia, Israel, Ethiopia and Denmark. Vive la difference.

Much of Rene Frelle Petersen’s cinematic sensibility has been lifted from Joel and Ethan Coen. Petersen, a 30-year-old Danish filmmaker, is a great admirer of the Coen brothers’ “True Grit,” “Fargo,” “No Country For Old Men” and “The Big Lebowski.” As Petersen describes his second film, a 30-minute dark comedy from 2007 titled “The Taste of Hair,” the Coen-esque sensibility takes shape.

“We have a certain ghetto street in Copenhagen – that’s what it’s called, Ghetto Street – and you can get in a lot of trouble there,” Petersen explained. “And every third shop is a salon, a hairdresser. Twenty-seven salons on the street, and I thought, How are they able to survive with all that competition? It was much like a Mafia organization, with protection, trying to destroy the other salons.”

For his latest film, Petersen took his inspiration from another set of brothers – his own. “Going Nowhere,” which shows Friday at Aspen Shortsfest, in Competition Program Eight, at 8:30 p.m., is an intimate story of two siblings – one in a wheelchair, despairing of his condition; the other doing his best to be sympathetic, accommodating and helpful. Petersen himself has two older brothers, who occupy very different stations in life. One (who will be in Aspen for Friday’s screening) is a doctor who has traveled the world, and spent time in Congo, working with Doctors Without Borders. The other brother has been mostly unemployed, living a happy existence in a friend’s basement.

“The difference [between the two] is the inspiration,” Petersen said. “I wanted to tell a story of brothers – that you are able to tell your brothers, sometimes, things you can’t tell your parents. The way brothers can support one another – to me, that is a certain love that is special. You’ve always known your brother. You can tease them. You can be childish at one point, and very serious at another point.”

The 20-minute “Going Nowhere” uses those qualities to excellent effect. The film’s big emotional turn springs directly from the deep well of experiences that mark the relationship between brothers.

Petersen’s other inspiration in making “Going Nowhere” was his desire not to be pigeonholed as a maker solely of comedies. His first film, about a man who goes begging door-to-door with a tin cup, he describes as a traditional Danish comedy. “The Taste of Hair” was rejected by numerous film festivals. “It was a mess. It was three stories combined in different ways. I guess only the Coen brothers can do that,” Petersen noted. But it was well-received in Denmark, and led to an offer to direct a feature-length comedy, the fourth in a series that began with the hit “Love at First Hiccup.” Petersen, who has numerous credits as assistant director on films, TV and commercials, turned it down.

Instead, he applied to the Danish Film Institute, specifying his desire to make a drama. The Institute asked him to write and direct one scene that would confirm his ability to work outside of comedy; Petersen submitted the entire script for “Going Nowhere.” His financing was secured.

“I didn’t want to get stuck in a genre. I had to prove I could direct and write drama,” he said, adding that he traces his dramatic sensibility to Clint Eastwood (“Million Dollar Baby” and “Mystic River”) and Mike Nichols (“The Graduate,” “Closer”). But Petersen is just as adamant that his concept of drama allows for moments of laughs and levity. “Sometimes, I don’t like a drama that’s all dramatic. There’s no room for the fun stuff that happens in life. You can have a dramatic moment, but the fun stuff can always come out of that.”

Petersen is at work on the script for his next film. It’s another short – and another drama, about a commitment-phobic man in his 40s, who meets for the first time his girlfriend’s 8-year-old daughter. Petersen likens it to “Going Nowhere”: “It’s a psychological relationship between two very different people,” he said.

Petersen seems to have gotten hooked on dramas, having seen the way audiences respond to “Going Nowhere.”

“People would cry, then laugh,” he said. “They’d tell me they were grateful for the film. I didn’t expect that; I just made it the way I wanted. But people said it moved them.”

Several years ago, Elite Zexer’s mother decided to become a photographer, and she had no trouble picking out the subject for her first series of images. She would document a Bedouin village in Israel’s Negev desert, and the changes that came as Israel invested resources in the village, giving the Bedouins electricity, running water and upgraded housing.

There was just one hitch to the plan: The improvements never happened, as the nation of Israel balked on its promises.

But the Zexer family, which lived near Tel Aviv, became close to some of the Bedouins over the years that the project was explored. Elite Zexer began to think of some of the villagers as part of her own family. So Zexer, who had studied film as an undergraduate at Tel Aviv University, embarked on her own project involving the Bedouin village.

Zexer’s project, like her mother’s, was centered around changes in the Bedouin community. But instead of focusing on promised material changes, Zexer focused on social dynamics that she saw occurring in front of her eyes. The younger Bedouin women had begun asserting themselves in a way that had been impossible before. The women went to school, pursued jobs and relationships outside of their village, and protested the marriages that were arranged for them.

“It’s a generation of change,” the 30-year-old Zexer said. “Usually, the girls are not allowed outside the house. Even when they get married, they have to stay inside. Now, young girls are getting driver’s licenses, college educations, meeting boys. They have a life outside the village and they see how things should be for them.”

Zexer’s take on this transitional moment is “Tasnim.” The 12-minute short, which has been screened in festivals in Europe, Israel and South America, and will be shown in the Shortsfest Competition Program Ten at 6 p.m. on Saturday, April 9, is a fictional tale of a young Bedouin girl. Tasnim is feisty and defiant, insisting on visiting her father in the Shig – the tent where village business is discussed, and which is off-limits to women. The film is short on plot, but big on character, emphasizing how Tasnim is willing to break Bedouin customs, and even get bossy with her own father.

“She’s a young girl who really, really believes she can do what she wants,” Zexer said. But the film includes a dose of reality, as Tasnim faces opposition from all sides in trying to assert herself. “She doesn’t know it’s not going to be as easy as she thought. The families aren’t ready to accept the changes. It is a patriarchal society.”

Zexer says that the Bedouin people have gotten “close to my heart. It’s something I’ve been living with for a few years.” And perhaps she is especially sympathetic to the difficulties faced by Bedouin women because she has known freedom, as an artist and as an Israeli citizen.

Zexer’s first short film, “Take Note,” was based on her time in the Army. The military experience, she said, “gave her a lot.” But the film, she added, had a critical tone about Israel’s policy of mandatory service in the military.

Her next film, “Fire Department Bnei Brak,” was about the fire-fighting squad in Israel’s most Orthodox Jewish city.

“Tasnim” is extracted from the script for what Zexer hopes will be her first feature-length film. The movie, which she is working on as her graduate project, is about three Bedouin women, each forced to make a transition.

Zexer has stayed away from the theme of conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors. She said that the idea that most Israeli films are about that political tension is based on a faulty perception: the world outside of the Middle East is most interested in such movies, so those are the ones that get distribution outside Israel. In fact, she said, most Israeli films are romantic comedies.

“I do think there is a statement in my film. There was something I wanted to say,” she said. “But it’s not about the political situation in Israel. When I speak with the Bedouins, we don’t talk politics. We talk about everyday life – how it is to marry someone you don’t want to marry; how is your dog?”

“For Today,” the second movie by Ethiopian filmmaker Zelalem Woldemariam, began with a fable that was all of four lines of text. “I added a lot of stuff. A lot, a lot,” Woldemariam noted.

Yes, a lot indeed. “For Today” may occupy a brief 14 minutes of screen time, but Woldemariam packs plenty into his short, which shows today in the Aspen Shortsfest Competition Program Seven, at 5:30 p.m. “For Today” touches on education, the environment, African history, youth versus authority, global dynamics. And while addressing these topics, the film delivers humor, a mesmerizing visual punch, and above all, a cautionary reminder of the connected nature of people to people, humans to the earth.

The story of “For Today” is simple enough; Woldemariam, a 34-year-old who runs an expansive film production company in his native Addis Ababa, was intent on telling a simple tale. The movie focuses on a well-intentioned beggar boy who is largely overlooked by his fellow villagers. But having a personal audience with Woldemariam is a treat, as the broad-thinking filmmaker points out the worldly vision contained in his story.

“This kid represents some community, or even a country, that doesn’t have the capacity to do something,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean they aren’t contributing something to the world. The community in the film, they don’t give him attention. They don’t talk to him. They don’t understand what he needs. But he’s a positive kid, a helpful kid.”

The community, too, is engaged in a positive activity; the action takes place as the village takes on a tree-planting project. But “For Today” presents the message that good deeds may not always be enough, that they must be done mindfully.

“You can do the right thing, but if you don’t do it in a proper way, it doesn’t come out right,” Woldemariam said. “If you don’t give people full information – why and how – they don’t understand. They won’t be participating.”

Woldemariam – whose first film, the feature-length “11th Hour,” showed at festivals in New York and France – gave “For Today” lavish attention. “In every frame, I want to do a message, a painting, a metaphorical tale of what is happening in this world,” he said.

Woldemariam’s ultimate message in “For Today” is, perhaps, the ultimate message – that humans need to see the interconnected nature of things. They need to see how they affect the environment, how one generation is linked to the next, how the actions of one nation impact all the others.

“We think about for today,” he said. “Naturally, you thing about today because there are so many needs. But we need to be educated, and to think about how we are all the same. Definitely, we should understand that someone far away, who I don’t know, affects my life.

“Why is this world getting wrong? Because we are selfish. We think about us, ourselves, maybe our family. But imagine our kids, they will be in a big problem. Unless we stop and think and feel that pain. Really, really, we should think about the future.”

As an actor who has done plenty of Shakespeare, Christopher Stollery is familiar with the dramatic turn in a story line. “I love a twist in a film,” the 45-year-old Australian said. And sure enough, “dik,” Stollery’s entry in Aspen Shortsfest, features a plot point that turns the story on its head, for both the audience and the characters in the film.

But unlike many short films, “dik” isn’t merely a build-up to the twist, and then the twist itself. Stollery’s 10-minute film, which shows on Saturday, April 9, in the Aspen Shortsfest Competition Program Eleven, offers a richness that Shakespeare himself might have appreciated. The twist itself is complex enough, having to do with both an innocent child and a sexual act. But “dik” also explores marital issues, sexual hypocrisy and the question of whether it is better at times for past deeds to remain buried.

Stollery, who studied at the National Institute of Dramatic Arts in Sydney, has made four short films, and as it happens – he said he had not intended this – all delve into issues of male identity. His first film, “Prick,” was about a boss dumping on his subordinate, and explored, he said, “a testosterone-driven power play.” (Taking in the fact that two of his movies are “dik” and “Prick,” Stollery added that “Not all my films are named after genitalia.”) “Fine,” which used the same characters as “Prick,” examined a man trying to talk his way out of a parking ticket – “another domination game, a flip on the power play,” Stollery said. And in “The Bill,” a man bullies a cafe worker into selling him a cup of coffee after hours. “Just so he can. He proves he can dominate this guy, by paying $1,000 for a cup of coffee.”

In “dik,” a mistaken reading of a boy’s crayon drawing opens the door for a couple to talk about their sexual histories. It is a door that probably should have remained closed.

“I want to see how bad a simple mistake could get, if you don’t examine your first impression,” Stollery said. “If you don’t examine the truth of something, one mistake leads to the next, and how bad can that get?”

The film also looks at gender equality, and whether people want as much of a level playing field between the sexes as they say. “There are a lot of things we buy into, a lot of cliches, that are really insubstantial,” Stollery said. “The whole idea of gender roles, I find ridiculous. One assumption is that equality is something we should all strive for – equal pay, equal jobs. But the nitty-gritty is, we don’t want that equality. We want the differences.”

Stollery is also interested in exploding the notion that film is primarily a visual medium. He brings up Arnold Schwarzenegger’s statement that the ultimate movie would have exactly one word of dialogue. The heart of “dik” is the verbal give-and-take between a couple.

“I’m not scared of dialogue,” Stollery said. “In Australia, we tend to think of film as a visual medium – very laconic, people speaking in monosyllables. It’s all about the images trying to tell the story. I don’t agree. I often think, who we are is what we say.”

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